- Treason in the Northern Quarter: War, Terror and the Rule of Law in the Dutch Revolt
In this English translation of his 1999 Het verraad van het Noorderkwartier, van Nierop uses a seemingly inconsequential episode during the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain to illustrate the horrific impact of the war on ordinary people. He also uses the incident to argue that the strength of local particularism and belief in the rule of law were so strong in the Dutch context that individuals, at least those who were backed by their town governments, could prevail against the forces of centralism, even during wartime.
By the year 1575, Dutch occupation of North Holland past the River IJ—the Noorderkwartier—presented a genuine military threat to the Spanish. To end that threat, royal officials planned an invasion of the north that aimed at the total destruction of the recalcitrant Hollanders via a scorched earth policy. But once the royal commander saw the strength of the Dutch fortifications, he abruptly turned his inadequate force of unpaid mercenaries around and abandoned the invasion. At a loss to explain the actions of their enemy, the rebel leadership in the Noorderkwartier concluded that treasonous elements in the local population had been prepared to betray the region to the Spanish, who had apparently withdrawn after their co-conspirators had been arrested. In fact, the supposed co-conspirators were merely an assortment of wandering beggars, who broke down under torture to implicate peasants, who were in turn tortured. Gradually the denunciations roped ever more notable figures into the horror of accusation and torture. Eventually, Jan Jeroenszoon, a lawyer from the town of Hoorn, was drawn into the inferno. But Jeroenszoon was able to make a persuasive case for his innocence and to tap a network of connections in Hoorn that brought the town government to intervene on his behalf. After he had won his release and that of two other prisoners, he filed suit for a wrongful accusation against the government officials who had persecuted him.
This story is not unfamiliar to scholars, but van Nierop is the first to avoid either a religious or nationalistic interpretation of it, opening the way for more attention to the impact of the Revolt on common people. Quoting the earlier article that triggered the research for this book, van Nierop notes, “For most contemporaries, the Revolt was probably not about anything at all. For them the war was simply a disaster, a nightmare from which they hoped to awake as soon as they could” (ix).1 Historians interested in the role of environmental effects upon historical development will find his attention to geographical analysis particularly useful. The western Netherlands in general, and the Nooderkwartier in [End Page 460] particular—slashed by lakes and rivers, dikes, and canals—offers an ideal site for such an inquiry. Van Nierop never lets his readers forget how the struggle against the sea shaped the political structures that ultimately determined Jeroenszoon’s fate. Military campaigns were also governed by the watery terrain; blockades and sieges could be crippled when an opponent broke the dikes. But this strategy damaged farmers’ livelihoods, adding to the misery that the Revolt brought down on the heads of common people.
Readers will appreciate the fact that the lucid writing of the Dutch volume has been preserved in Grayson’s excellent translation, making this book an accessible, important source of knowledge about people, environment, and the horrors of war.
1. Van Nierop, “Om de vrijheid en de godsdienst: Het beeld van de Nederlandse Opstand,” in Herman Beliën and Gert-Jan van Setten (eds.), Dossier Geschiedenis-dagen 1994 (Amsterdam, 1995), 76–87.